We’ve all been force fed the idea that the United States of America began as a profoundly Christian country. The Salem witch trials, we’re told, prove that any sign of pagan or metaphysical beliefs was ruthlessly stamped out in Massachusetts by the Puritans. In Pennsylvania the Quakers and other Pietist cults are said to have practiced purely Christian devotions. The more radical Virginians may have been Deists, but that still puts them squarely in the realm of Protestant Christian dogma. In Appalachia superstitions may have abounded but Christianity ruled the social order.
The truth is the American metaphysical religion, once thought to have surfaced only during infrequent eruptions such as Spiritualism in the 19th Century and the New Age movement in the 20th, is in fact a constant and pervasive theme of American culture from the first establishment of the colonies down to our own time. What’s another word for melting pot? Cauldron.
Here’s some notes from Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion to prove the point.
A leading Puritan, John Butler, commented on the Puritan’s preoccupation with alchemy as a natural science. He approved. John Winthrop Jr., first governor of Connecticut, and eldest son of the governor of Massachusetts Bay, brought a huge alchemical library to the colony, that included many books from John Dee’s own collection. Winthrop was a practitioner of healing by herbal alchemy. Cotton Mather called him “Hermes Christianus.”
Harvard College was a hotbed of alchemical studies including the famous George Starkey, and Gershom Bulkeley, a Harvard minister and son in law of the president of Harvard. The Puritans contemplated the beauty and justice of Nature, believing if they could conform to cosmic order, they would be healed and saved, and enjoy the fruits of a successful life. They weren’t above consulting the cunning folk, or white witches, when in need of advice or a healing, though they might be scolded for it.
Meanwhile in the Virginia colonies astrology was very popular. The average gentleman farmer sought to decipher his fate, and manage his life, according to the aspects of the stars. These descendants of royalists rewarded by the crown gambled not only for fun, but to divine the current state of their luck. They worried over dreams and omens, visited fortune tellers, and employed witches to control weather. They carved ancient signs of protection on their houses. William Byrd, member of the Virginia Council of State, is said to have practiced the conjuring of magical angelic power and to have freely discussed it with his friends.
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania while the Quakers were trying to convince members of their own denomination as well as other locals to give up divination by geomancy, palmistry and astrology, they were themselves experimenting with communication (and raising) of the dead, foreshadowing the table tapping ectoplasm craze of the next century’s Spiritualist movement. Even the most pious Quakers in practice and theory owed much to Jakob Boehme, the Kabbala, and Rosicrucian and alchemical undercurrents, here and there blatantly practiced by splinter groups. The healing power of spirit was a constant theme.
Finally, in the Appalachians the farmers performed every action with meticulous attention to the moon phases and to other signs of nature (a baby born with an equal number of folds on each leg means the next baby will be a girl). Their knowledge of their terrain must have appeared magical (watching how the wasps build their nests in spring to predict the weather) and the line between so called superstition and meticulous observation of nature was well blurred. The first tick found on a child had magical importance. If a parent wanted a child to be a hard worker the tick was crushed with a shovel. If the parent wanted the child to have a beautiful singing voice the tick was crushed with a bell or banjo.
Do you recognize these four basic flavors of the American metaphysical religion? The Puritans are our scholars of esoterica. The Pietists are our ghost hunters and frequenters of mediums. The Virginians are our astrologers, especially the ones gambling in the stock market. And Appalachia practiced something close to today’s gone native shamanistic approach to spirituality. Little did our forefathers know how far we’d elaborate their ideas and practices!
So don’t let anybody tell you that America is, has always been and will always be Christian. It just ain’t so. The truth is that America has always been incubating a religion that represents the melting together of the spiritual traditions of every continent. The streams of Native American religion, the shamanism of Asia, African religion and its Afro Caribbean variant, and all the streams of mystical and magical doctrine of Europe and the UK, flowed together to create America. You can read more about this here.